As many readers know, I live in Los Angeles, home to Hollywood and famous for year-round sunshine where even in winter it’s frequently warm enough to get a tan. Personally, I love the dark, cold, wet winter days of more northern locales. A pal from New Zealand – where the climate closely resembles Ireland’s – chides me for belittling LA’s “glorious weather.” Hogwash. We don’t have weather; we only have sun.
Maybe it’s the writer in me. Maybe it’s my Irish genes. No matter the source, I revel in wet, raw weather that gives me cause to stay inside my toasty house and cook soups and stews. In years past when I had fewer chores, while the air filled with the aroma of something savory cooking, I would snuggle up with a good book. These days, I’m more likely to watch a film.
The folk in Ireland who plan events must agree that winter is “film time” as one of the largest film festivals in Ireland, the Virgin Media DIFF (Dublin International Film Festival) takes place March 3rd-14th.
If the connection between food and film seems slim, picture this. You’re watching a movie about baseball. Suddenly you get a craving for a hot dog. Perhaps it’s a tale about the Mob. The guys are in the slammer. Someone’s smuggled in pepperoni and wine. One of the Goodfellas is holding a knife, but he’s not menacing a guard, just slicing paper-thin garlic slivers for the tomato gravy. On cue, you hunger for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
You’ll sit out the rest of the film engrossed in the plot, but on the back burner of your mind, something’s cooking. Then, as lights come up and credits roll, movie-munch-madness sets in, and you head for a local eatery that’s serving up something akin to what you’ve just been watching the actors wolf down on screen.
John Huston’s interpretation of Joyce’s The Dead had me wishing for a glass of hot mulled cider. After Into The West, I pined for a baked bean sandwich. Sometimes the taste temptation is purely a tease. Watching The Van brought on a craving for a plate of fish and chips, a practically impossible meal to find in late-night LA.
Dollars to doughnuts, you know the feeling. But why does post-film food frenzy set in and turn mild-mannered moviegoers into desperate diners seeking tasty treats? As a ritual that binds humanity together, food is one of filmdom’s favorite scenic ploys for grabbing audience attention.
The stage is set, characters are defined, plots turn, and symbolism slithers into our subconscious by the food-focused frames that fill the silver screen like tasty tidbits proffered on silver platters.
Back when productions employed thousands of extras, many a biblical epic depicted hordes of evil ones feasting on exotic fare while the poor starving good guys barely got by on bread and water. Countless Westerns portrayed the rigors of life on the range with scenes of cowhands hunkered down around a chuckwagon chowing biscuits and beans. Innumerable period pieces have defined an era by incorporating a meal of the appropriate societal niche, geographical place, or particular time into the storyline.
Lightning-quick food vignettes provide an immediate understanding of a character’s persona. In Public Enemy, when Jimmy Cagney jams half a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face, he instantly reveals his arch-villain mentality. In Gone With The Wind, we witness Scarlett’s petulance when she frets about not being able to eat at the opening scene’s barbecue; later, we see her steely core when she scrabbles in the dirt for a carrot vowing “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
The coming-of-age classic The Breakfast Club succinctly demonstrated the marked differences between the main characters by showing what each one had brought for lunch. The socialite dined on sushi, the intellectual ate a balanced Basic-5 meal, the sports jock consumed an assortment of high carbs, and the eccentric bohemian tossed away her sandwich filling opting instead for a creative pile of sugar crystals, while the outlaw ate nothing at all.
Frequently, plots twist on pivotal food scenes. In Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane, the rift between husband and wife that leads to the disintegration of their marriage is neatly conveyed when the Kanes share a silent breakfast at opposite ends of an immense table. In quite another vein, Tom Jones graphically demonstrated the eros of amor in the famous scene where Tom and his amorous partner seduce each other by slurping oysters and toothily tearing into turkey legs as errant juices trickle down their chins. It remained unrivaled for sensual innuendo until Bo Derek peeled and ate a banana in Tarzan the Ape Man.
Occasionally, entire films revolve around a food theme. Who’s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? used food motifs throughout as both the settings and methods of murder. In Babette’s Feast, a gourmet meal was the catalyst that proved how even the most stolid souls can be awakened from complacency. Like Water For Chocolate maximized food symbolism. Every plot point occurred during food scenes underscored by the heroine’s passionate thoughts as she prepared, served, and witnessed the effects her culinary masterpieces evoked from the film’s characters.
As a cinematic device, food can express the entire range of human experience. The sanctity of the family is lauded every time a family sits and sups together, especially at the climactic Christmas dinner in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Countless slapstick pie fights have had us rolling in the aisles at life’s absurdity. And when Charlie Chaplin’s starving tramp makes a meal of his boot and shoelaces in The Gold Rush, we hover between pathos and comedy wondering whether to laugh or cry.
There is a dark side to the human creature as well, and food imagery has also been used to symbolize the chilling horror of a perverse mind. Decades of cinematic vampires have survived on liquid diets of warm blood. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal the Cannibal’s preference for a human liver epitomizes the twisted depravity of a pathologically insane serial murderer.
Food even has a place in science fiction. In the 1950’s classic Forbidden Planet, Robbie the Robot wows a stranded interstellar crew by popping full-course dinners from an electronic matter converter located in his bionic belly. When Starman Jeff Bridges experiences pain in his mid-section and learns it’s caused by a sensation known as hunger, he pulls into a diner and becomes an instant apple pie addict. And in E.T. we learned that while extraterrestrials are pushovers for junk food, even they do dumb things when they’ve imbibed a bit too much beer.
As a motif that encapsulates and demonstrates every level of human experience, food has no equal in the filmic medium. Food binds us and defines us, as individuals and as a species. It symbolizes ecstasy and despair, all that we hold sacred, and all that is profane. That food is the quintessential metaphor for existence comes across loud and clear in Auntie Mame when Rosalind Russell proclaims: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death. So live, live, live!”
This year let winter be your ticket to a film feast. Next time the North wind blows, bringing cold, rain, or snow, munch on a bowl of popcorn while a tasty Irish Stew simmers on the stove, and celebrate Erin’s contribution to film by watching one (or more!) of the great Irish films listed below. Slainte!
The best way to search for films with Irish subject matter is the www.irishfilm.net database. Hundreds of films are categorized as Biography, History, Documentary, IRA, Irish-Americans, Irish Immigrants, Irish Mob, Irish Folklore, The Old Country, and Boxing; many have synopsis notes.
If you don’t feel like braving the cold to visit your local video store, www.netflix.com is a great way to obtain films without ever having to leave the house! In addition to major studio and independent Irish films, searching “Irish” on the database revealed 47 very hard-to-find documentary items ranging from music, mirth, and myth, to whiskey, manor houses (The Irish Country House narrated by Anjelica Huston), and His Irish Wit and Wisdom (insights on Irish culture and humor from one of television’s earliest evangelical stars: Bishop Fulton Sheen).
4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 sup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
2 cups golden or dark raisins
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Heat oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and caraway seeds. Using a pastry blender or fork, cut in butter until the mix feels like coarse meal. Stir in raisins evenly.
In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg and baking soda until well combined. Pour buttermilk mix into the flour-butter mixture all at once, and stir with a fork until all the liquid is absorbed and the dough begins to hold together. Press the dough into one large dome-shaped loaf (or two small) and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. In a clean small bowl, mix the egg yolk and cream together, then paint the dough with the mixture using your fingers or a pastry brush. With a sharp knife, cut a cross about 1/2-inch deep into the top of the dough. Place bread in the oven and bake, rotating halfway through, until it is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the center, about 60 minutes (less for smaller loaves). Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Makes 1 large loaf or 2 small. (Recipe by Edythe Preet)
DUBLIN CODDLE T
This hearty winter dish has long been a favorite Saturday night special in Dublin where it is usually served with foamy glasses of Guinness. Cooking time is conveniently just about the same as the length of a film!
8 1/4-inch-thick slices ham
8 pork sausages
1 quart boiling water
4 large onions
2 pounds potatoes
4 heaping tablespoons freshly chopped parsley salt and pepper
Cut the ham into large chunks and cook with the sausages in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain but reserve the liquid. Peel and thinly slice the onions and potatoes. Put the meat into a large saucepan with the onions, potatoes and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and add enough of the stock to barely cover. Lay a piece of parchment paper on top, and put on the lid. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for approximately an hour or until the liquid is reduced by half and all the ingredients are cooked but not mushy. Serve with fresh soda bread to soak up the broth and glasses of Guinness to wash it all down. Makes 4 large or 8 normal servings. Recipe can be halved. (Classic Irish Recipes – Georgina Campbell) ♦